Because of the shame and self-hatred my stepfather had given me, there were and are no photos of me between 1992 and 2004. If I saw one from those years in an album, or between the pages of my mother’s Bible, I threw them away. This too was an act of self-negation, of killing that inner child. Whether the photo was framed or pressed into a book, it met the same fate because we needed the money. My childhood after I turned ten was either erased, sold, or trashed.
When therapists have asked me to discuss my childhood in an attempt to explain odd behaviors or anger – what it is now called “complex post-traumatic stress disorder” rather than “just being a dick” – I tell them honestly that I don’t remember much beyond cleaving events. The connective tissue of life, the memories of enjoying a peanut butter sandwich with someone or laughing at a movie are not memories I possess any longer. I remember the knife. I remember the color of hair someone had. But what did I feel? What did I think? Inaccessible. The markers along the road to memory are lost now. It is entirely possible to scratch and claw away memories until you don’t even exist in your own mind anymore. Like those time travelers in the comics, each day you make small decisions that require your erasure. You hope that tomorrow will be better for others when you are erased, but survival is a gamble sometimes.
Rachel Summers, the daughter of Jean Grey and Cyclops, embodied something eerily similar. In one possible future timeline, Rachel is repeatedly victimized. She is scarred by her experiences. When she is thrown backwards into the present day, she makes decisions on the basis of their potential outcome. She withholds affection and she avoids friendships because what is the point of any of this? She is homeless, timeless, and transient. Her purpose, having survived what will come, becomes the survival of others and the negation of herself. Rather, she makes hard decisions in an attempt to avoid her own birth. She makes these decisions because she has come to believe that if she allows herself happiness today, it could create the circumstances of her future oppression. Bishop, another time traveler, also comes from the future to the present-day X-men in an effort to save them. Convinced of the rightness of his cause, he threatens and at one point tries to kill them because he can no longer endure the possibility of seeing the mistakes of his past repeated in their present. The refrain from story arcs involving time travel is clear: Heroes are not necessarily making the world better and, even when they do the right things, they can’t see all of the outcomes. Sometimes, things go sideways and you can’t stop it.
It was in this way that X-men, which had made up the majority of my small collection of comics, became an idea, serving the same function as religion. Jesus, Muhammed, Esther, Judith, Paul, Mary, Moses, and David offer models for how to orient our lives; while many devotees will read and re-read their stories over the course of a year, even a lifetime, familiarity breeds memory. During All That Happened, I read the Bible three times each year. First, I read it backwards – the Christian apocalypse of Revelation, then Jude, then John III, until ending with the book of creation, Genesis – then I began to read other different translations, front to back. Those years developed in me an ability to recall both the text and the context of scriptural passages which does not necessitate having the text in my hand. In fact, it is my opinion that anyone who requires the Bible in their hand to be able to recall details – who the Twelve Apostles were or whether Abraham was Isaac’s father, wait, wasn’t he his grandfather? I’m not sure – provides evidence against themselves that perhaps they need to challenge their reading habits. In other words, while the loss of my collection was a decisive moment, the stories and characters, the connective tissue, remains.
Magik, a lesser-known mutant in the X-men canon, is the sister of Colussus; they are Russian mutants who immigrate to the United States. Superficially, Colussus is a seven-foot man who can turn his skin into literal steel. Over time, Colussus experiences the same disillusionment to loss that I held when I sold my childhood. He “toughens up” and, over time, prefers to hide behind his steel skin. He feels more authentic there, impenetrable and inhuman. Magik, his sister, can open up portals to an alternate dimension. Like her brother, she uses her powers to escape this world more frequently as she gets older. While she suffers many of the same losses as her brother – the death of their family, disillusionment, the unique trauma of embracing an America that persecutes them not because of who they are but because of where they are from – she also suffers in ways familiar to many comic readers. She is abused as a child and loses herself in the fantasy world for a while, trying to escape that abuse. When she returns, she has lost her entire childhood. Too many decisions had to be made so she could survive; childhood, the safety of fantasy, had become an encumbrance for her.
It’s not just this particular family, Piotr and Illyana Rasputin. Indeed, families are used to explore generational trauma and our responses to it in the pages of the X-men. Scott “Cyclops” Summers, the leader of the team, had to give up his own son in one complex storyline in the 1980s. Jean Grey, Scott’s wife, has given her life more than once. Alex, Scott’s brother, continually exhibits a sense of estrangement despite growing up with an adoring adoptive family. Some heroes give up on their dreams for peace. Others give up the adoring worship of godhood. Sacrifice is a constant. How we respond to it is diverse, often unexpected.
In the Eighties, Evangelicals began to bring their message of salvation and damnation to the airwaves. At this same time in the comics, the X-men were attacked by religious devotees of Reverend William Stryker, whose appearance and manners are eerily similar to the televangelists of the time. Reverend Stryker, like real-life televangelists, directs the wrath of God at “others” – people who aren’t white, heterosexual, religious, and living with a constant sense of shame. He demands that “the faithful” enact God’s will and violence against their neighbors if need be to make America great again. It was almost prescient, recognizing where Evangelicalism would go.
In other instances, the road to villainy is explored. Magneto is not a maniac determined to upend the magnetic poles of the earth so much as a Holocaust survivor who wants to create a nation for his own people, mutants instead of Jews. One feels sympathy for him, even as the story raises questions about antisemitism and reconciling the progress of society with the ravages of the Holocaust. Apocalypse, another villain, is discovered to be an immortal but sickly Egyptian whose “evil” is really an effort to survive at all costs. Is he truly evil when all he wants is for people to reach their potential? Sebastian Shaw, leader of a secret society, holds to the belief that villany is a matter of perspective, evil a label used by desperate people to criticize anyone who overthrows oppression. Shaw is a hero, in a sense, despite his manipulation. Should we call the person in the hospital bed a villain for wanting to live past socially defined limits or do we call the advances of science progress? The X-men were never afraid of raising ethical, moral, and social questions about who we thought we were and where we thought things were headed.
These are not unique analyses. The X-men, as presented in the comics, were never afraid of narrative complexity and double meanings. When I read them, the comics spent a decade dealing with a virus that seemingly only affected mutants. The Legacy Virus was a direct parallel to the AIDS epidemic of the Eighties and Nineties. Most of the X-men storylines, since their creation, have been metaphors of the headlines all around us. The death and rebirth of Jean Grey is a metaphor for feminism. Assassination attempts on fictional politicians like Robert Kelly mirror those of John and Robert Kennedy, an attempt on ideologue Professor X mirrors that of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Antagonism of political divides in our country made their way into the page in many forms. Televangelism is a threat to civility (and religious understanding) whether in the comics or on our television screens and radio stations. Magneto is a stand-in for the oppression of the Jews as they seek a peaceful nation of their own. The legal-but-unethical persecution of populations like the one in the fictional nation of Genosha in the late Eighties would have already been familiar to those aware of apartheid in South Africa. Genosha is even located at the lower end of the African continent in case readers needed to see the connection on a map. Writers like Chris Claremont were unapologetic in using their medium to help people engage in careful thought.
The X-men have always offered a liminal space, a fantasy world, to work through the thoughts and beliefs we hold about the events occurring all around us. Colossus and Magik embody longstanding issues in the Russian experience which will likely be foreign to American readers. For Colussus, the invitation to violence is offered by the Russian Mafia with their black markets; the tension is not foreign to the reader. At issue is whether a naturally gifted man will set aside his convictions for personal wealth and whether there will ever be enough money to exit the unrelenting poverty of circumstance. For Magik, his sister, these same circumstances lead to the loss of her innocence. While her brother benefits from social corruption, she is its victim. Magik experiences sexual violence from those who promise to love and protect her. This is not an experience exclusive to Russia, though. While Colussus appears to be himself, even appears to do the “right” thing in refusing violence, he still withdraws from life, taking refuge in becoming mentally and emotionally detached. He is safe behind his facade of armored skin, protected by his gifts even as he avoids his fragile humanity. In parallel, Magik will lose touch with her inner child even as new realms open for her. She will eventually come into adulthood hardened like her brother and far more unclear on who she is apart from the abuse she experienced. Abuse and violence are familiar to some readers, as are the contrasted experiences of how we mature with those experiences.
As superheroes and heroines like the X-men and the Avengers have made the transition out of the colorful pages of comics into theaters, many critics have ridiculed the colorful worlds of fantasy. I suspect that many of the conversations about the rise of “blockbuster movies” and the decline of “cinema” have a lot more to do with an individual’s worldview than it does the state of culture. Director Zack Snyder was able to present a colorless vision in his Man of Steel, Superman v. Batman, Justice League trilogy in contrast to the popcorn fodder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. Snyder put forward a vision that was more philosophically reflective and artistic than The Avengers movies. During a recent charity event, Snyder pushed back on his critics.
“I think, and maybe I’m wrong. but I feel like a lot of people went into the movies going like, ‘Oh, it’s the superhero romp, right? Let’s have fun with it!’ And we gave them this sort of hardcore deconstructivist, heavily layered, experiential modern mythological superhero movie that needs…that you really need to pay attention to. That was not cool [for them]. That’s not something anyone wanted to do. They were like, ‘What? No! That’s exhausting. How about, why do they fight at night?’ I hate that… “I think you have to want to make an effort to dig a little deeper.”Zack Snyder, as quoted by Aeron Mer Eclarinal in “Zack Snyder Gets Honest”, The Direct (9 May 2023)
While the X-men gave readers like me a liminal space to work through my parent’s divorce, the abuse of my stepfather, and to entertain ideas about individualism and collectivism, it also gave me a utopian vision. Superheroes in comics, like every other art form, are not inherently meant to explore complexity. The form lends itself to thoughtful analysis, sure. But it should not continually operate as a reflection of the world around us. That is not the exclusive role of art. Art is, in turns a reflection, a challenge, an opportunity, and an escape.
In Russia, a popular show last year was DVA Holma. A hundred years after the majority of the world’s male population was wiped out due to nuclear and biological warfare, a peaceful and flourishing earth is now dominated by women who’ve created secure utopian communities. When a school field trip visits the encampment of the few remaining men, a chance encounter ignites a spark between a man and a woman from opposite ends of society. As we see in the show, losing all men isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Women grieve for a short time, then unite and create a new better world with ecologically-friendly towns, renewable energy, opportunities to do whatever they want! Ah, the advances of science and biohacking without men! There is commercials for vibrators without having to consider men jealous of battery-operated sexual toys. There is even yoga and self-development available – for free! – to everyone without male interference or fear of violence! Reproduction now occurs by artificial insemination, and only girls are born in the newly liberated world. The few men who remain are cattle of a sort, attended to only so far as they are needed for sperm in this safer, more liberated world. Who wouldn’t want to live in such a world? Consider this vision for a moment, the ways in which DVA Holma puts forward a self-conscious feminism.
In contrast, Y:The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic science fiction comic book series by Vertigo Comics. Last year, FX tried to adapt the series, which also examines a world without men. In the first episode, we witness global androcide, when all living mammals with a Y chromosome (including embryos and sperm) simultaneously die. The exception is a young amateur escape artist named Yorick Brown and his Capuchin monkey, Ampersand. Many women die as a secondary effect of male deaths, such as plane crashes and in the days and weeks that follow, society is plunged into chaos as infrastructures collapse and confusion. The surviving women across the world try to cope with the loss of men and the belief that, barring a rapid, major scientific breakthrough or other extraordinary event, humanity is doomed to extinction. While a series like this certainly lends itself to considering society and government, the nature of global collapse and the rebuilding of humanity, another part of it is quite superficial. Y: The Last Man is the fever dream of a horny teenage boy with a katana and his pet monkey. While there are, of course, lesbians who offer pleasure as well as relationships and comfort, Yorick remains an object of desire by every women he meets, women have come to feel that they (individually) their gender (collectively) are incomplete without a man to save them and their wombs.
Which reading of Y: The Last Man is more correct, the social commentary or the wet dream? Which show is closer to reality, DVA Holma with its farms for extracting sperm or the unbridled, even violent sexuality of Y: The Last Man?
Fantasy worlds offer entertainment as well as a space to work through our issues – personal, social, sexual, whatall. In contrast, in another comicbook-turned-series like The Walking Dead, the story begins with the end of the world as we know it. Rick Grimes, a police officer, is attacked and wakes up in a hospital bed to discover the world has changed overnight. There was no transitional state. The world ended and something new began. I would offer that the popularity – of the show, at least – is because many people relate to this experience. While we may not have to safely navigate around zombies and the fallout of an almost-destroyed world, there is something to be said here about a rapidly-changing world and the ways our carefully built world and the machinations of war meant to protect our glittering towers of enterprise become the terrifying world of tomorrow. In other words, slashing zombies is fun. Watching the various ways a character can explode, dismember, decapitate, shoot, enslave, and ultimately profit from the undead is fun. The fact that it is fun, that it is entertaining at all, says a lot about the state of the world. And in case we didn’t notice this: the name of the comic/show is The Walking Dead, not the walking undead. Folks, we’re meant to think about something here.
The world today can feel soul-crushing. Whether you’re churning out emails in a cubicle for eight hours a day, are forced to sew t-shirts around the clock that are only worn once, or are bombarded by headlines of sea level rise, droughts, and disasters, the crushing weight of global capitalism feels inescapable. But all is not lost. While the destruction of climate chaos and the chains of fossil capitalism feels suffocating, as science-fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin argues, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” The story is a powerful tool, one that harnesses the future to create change in the present. Stories plant seeds. Beautiful visions that have the potential to germinate into alternative worlds show us that business-as-usual is not inevitable. So, as we struggle to upend the current status quo of rampant emissions, and extraction at any cost, what role do visions of the future hold? Are they even useful, and what stories and artistic utopias are out there that might bring light to the looming darkness of climate chaos?
Entering a new era of acceptance, the comics began to hint that some characters were in open relationships, even triads, like that of team leader Cyclops, his wife Jean, and their teammate Wolverine. A few years later, one issue of the comic showed that the three had connecting bedrooms. A few months after that, when fans directly asked what was going on, it was shown that the throuple share a bedroom. Their relationship over the decades moved from flirtatious to nonmonogamous to exclusive to infidelity to open to polysecure. Might this say something about the changing nature of relationships and sexuality and monogamy in America? According to Scoot Allan of ComicBookResources, the positive reception of nontraditional relationships in comics. Writing for CBR, Allan notes
Jean, Logan and Scott have proven that love triangles don’t have to be competitions and can in fact transform into healthy relationships involving all parties. The teasing exchanges in The Black Cat Strikes #5 suggest a new possibility for Peter, MJ and Felicia, as well, which could potentially introduce another canon polycule to the Marvel Universe.Scott Allan, “Step Aside Logan, Jean and Scott…”, ComicBookResources.com (10 July 2020)
It is curious that my parents, two Evangelicals who impressed a conservative worldview upon me when I was young, allowed me to read whatever I wanted. When my parents were still together, my father allowed me to look at Playboy even when my mother was nonplussed. My mother, who strongly believed that abortion was a sin and moral evil when I was little, still holds this view. But, she taught me, “you never know what you’ll do in that situation until you’re in it.” Neither parent would have wanted me to be in a relationship with a black woman, but then again relations with a non-white woman would be preferable to any color of man. So it’s curious, I suppose, that they allowed me to read X-men with its outright progressive approach to the world.
X-men was the first comic to welcome team members of other nations. They were the first to have a gay member. They were the first to install a woman as field commander in their battles and, recently, the first team to show polyamory with central (i.e. non-peripheral or expendable) characters. The competing ideologies between Professor X and Magneto may have originally helped frame civil rights for those first readers, but they now speak to the divide in politics, worldviews, religious expressions of optimism and cynicism, even the role of police and violence in American society.
Other fandoms have addressed social issues directly and indirectly. Star Trek excelled at this in the late 1960s; creator and writer Gene Roddenberry wrote several episodes addressing race, politics, and geopolitics. He felt it was essential to show diversity in casting, inspiring Black people and Asian Americans through representation. Star Wars, according to creator George Lucas, was deeply inspired by the Vietnam War. In his universe, the fascist interference of the Empire was a direct reflection of the American government in foreign wars. But as Boomers began to age, science fiction and fantasy writing began to emphasize the role of the individual in conflict with systems. By the Eighties, the hit show Quantum Leap focused on one individual lost in time who simply wanted to get back home. There was little room for celebrating collective action and solidarity in fiction when American culture reveled in individualism and an attitude that greed was good. In comics, Batman refused his sidekick Robin, confident that he could handle crime alone. This made 1991’s “reboot” of the X-men comics under Claremont’s writing and Jim Lee’s art direction such a watershed moment in the zeitgeist. X-men had quietly developed into a counterculture of its own, reflecting communal living, interdependence, and tolerance. Issues examining the religious beliefs of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde, who is Jewish, and Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner, who is Catholic, were written as exercises in mutual understanding. Magik’s eventual death allowed readers to see the toll of war on the family of heroes – not in a single issue, but across years and sometimes even decades. It rewarded readers who were invested, who were patient, and who actually cared about the lives of these characters beyond their powers and abilities. It played a long game of cultural awareness and education.
Writing at the end of 2022 for Nerdist, Jules Greene noticed the same thing in their article, “Wakanda Forever Shows How the MCU Should Handle the X-men.” Later this year, Disney+ will release new episodes of the hit cartoon series from the Nineties, X-men ’92, bringing these characters to a new audience who may – I hope – find a measure of self-awareness and understanding, even comfort like I did. What’s more, since Disney has the rights to every Marvel character and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, they have declared their intention of rebooting the X-men team on film, joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in ways more reflective of Claremont’s writing. Greene writes that
“Wakanda Forever beautifully sets up what an X-Men movie could look like in the MCU through its handling of political topics. This is primarily achieved through its reenvisioning of Namor’s identity. Namor has explicitly been non-white in the comics, vocally declaring a vendetta against all white men from the very beginning. However, his arched eyebrows and racially-ambiguous appearance never pointed to a specific human culture he had ancestry from.
“Wakanda Forever takes a much firmer stance. It rewrites his comics origin by making him the protector of an Indigenous community in the Yucatan. Known to his people as K’uk’ulkan, the Sub-Mariner got the name “Namor” when a Spanish missionary called him “el niño sin amor.” Thus, Namor’s Indigenous background is an integral part of his character in the MCU. Beyond the fact that Tenoch Huerta, an Indigenous actor, plays Namor, his politics, anxieties, and hopes for his people stem from his experiences with Spanish imperialism.
“This characterization of Namor is significant, because it echoes the principles that have guided X-Men comics for nearly 50 years now. While the X-Men had been around in Marvel Comics since 1963, they were revolutionized in the mid-1970s. Beginning with 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, and continuing through writer Chris Claremont’s legendary X-Men and New Mutants runs, the X-Men focused heavily on the unique ethnic and cultural backgrounds of its characters.
“Previously, the team had been largely white American. However, with the introduction of mutants from around the world like Storm (of Kenyan descent), Colossus (Russian), and Nightcrawler (a Catholic from Germany), in addition to Indigenous mutants like Thunderbird (Apache), the X-Men found their footing with a more diverse cast. While the cast of Giant-Size X-Men may not seem as diverse by 2022 standards, it was revolutionary at the time to feature Russian and German characters who weren’t villains.
“By approaching Marvel’s Merry Mutants through a culturally-conscious lens, X-Men comics tied mutant identity to contemporary political issues. Since mutations either manifested from birth, or later in life in response to extreme stress, they came to reflect unique problems faced by marginalized groups. For instance, New Mutants member Karma (Xi’an Coy Manh) gained her ability to possess people during the Vietnam War. She took control of a North Vietnamese soldier who was about to kill her younger brother. For many X-Men characters, their mutant identities and marginalized identities are deeply entwined. By grounding mutants within the lived experiences of people from around the world, Claremont’s X-Men illustrated how mutant identity was not monolithic.
“And yet, this straightforward handling of Namor’s cultural background is something the X-Men films have largely shied away from. With the exception of Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the X-Men films left out the comics’ emphasis on cultural specificity. Banshee, an Irish mutant whose wife died in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, was American in X-Men: First Class. More troublingly, Sunspot, an Afro-Brazilian mutant who got his powers while defending himself from anti-Black racism, has never been played by an Afro-Brazilian actor. Beyond just whitewashing, the omission of these characters’ identities also omits their political perspectives as mutants. Thus, the discourse in the Fox films is limited by a white American sense of homogeny.
“As such, the MCU should use Wakanda Forever’s vision of Namor as the basis for assembling its X-Men cast. Fox’s X-Men films went astray when they stopped exploring the complexities in the fight for liberation. This is the essential drama of the comics, and the essential drama of Wakanda Forever. Magneto may be a standout character, as a radical militant Holocaust survivor, but he’s so much better when he’s in the company of other mutants whose identities enrich the metaphor. By taking a culturally-conscious route, the MCU’s X-Men can embody the comics’ most radical idea. A diverse group of marginalized people can lead the world to a better place, without flattening out the differences between them.
“Overall, Wakanda Forever proves that the MCU can handle topics like imperialism and genocide in a setting that is both fantastical and politically engaged. These elements are also the core of Marvel’s current era of X-Men comics.Jules Greene, “Wakanda Forever Shows How the MCU Should…” (16 Nov. 2022)
For me, the X-men allowed me a way to disassociate. I was not present for parts of my childhood and young adulthood. I was always somewhere else, my head in the clouds. In adulthood, each time I take my little brother to the movies for the latest Marvel blockbuster or Star War, or escapist fantasy, I am doing my best to give him what I never had when I was young – a team. Three months later, when the movie we just watched comes out for home purchase, I buy it for him so that he can have the collection I was not able to keep in my twenties. Long before The Fast & Furious franchise put the idea forward, the X-men were about family and enduring the hard times together. Armchair psychologists would say that I am trying to give him a safer childhood than the one I had, and I would not argue with this. It’s crossed my mind many times, especially when I do not particularly want to see the next installment of a series. You see, I watch the shows too. It’s not just the movies. When I collected comics, I was always on the hunt for one-shots and limited series to help fill in gaps and flesh out the stories happening in the anchor titles that were meant for broader audiences. After each episode of The Mandalorian, or the release of a new trailer, or a preview for an upcoming videogame, we call one another and discuss. It’s tedious but intentional.
At the end of All That Happened, I tried to reconcile with my father. I asked questions, trying to understand him in ways he never made an effort to do with me. I asked him why he never took an interest in me until I was an adult. “You were a kid. What were we supposed to talk about? You weren’t interesting to me.” I asked why he never made an effort to help me when I was going through the early stages of what happened to me. “I chose my family. It wasn’t you. You would have ruined things for me.” I asked him about the time my mother called him to inform him I was talking about committing suicide, that I had had a mental breakdown and was a threat to myself. He shrugged. “I guess it didn’t matter to me at the time.” Trying desperately to find something familiar, some echo of humanity in him, I asked if he had ever suffered from depression like I did. He laughed. “No. Something must be wrong with you. I’ve never been like that. You’re the only one.”
Years later, he claimed he never said this. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, he has been suffering from depression for decades. Before enlisting, he had lost his mother when he was five years old. Before anyone could break this devestating news to him, he realized his mother had died as he got home from school. From the window of the bus, he saw his toys and bed on the side of the road outside his parent’s house, “and I just knew.” It turns out, he had a similar conversation to the one I was trying to have with him. There was a point, several years ago, when he tried to find humanity in his father or at least ask him what the hell happened. Had he missed some crucial detail that would explain decades of abandonment? My father is not the villain here. He’s a product of abuse, and loss, and abandonment, and trauma. Billy, his dad, flatly told him he never wanted him. Why had his father thrown him out when his mother died? “This is a direct quote,” my father recalls. “‘The bitch was dead. What use did I have for the pups?’ That was my dad for you.”
I make that call to my brother for the same reason I read X-men comics as a child. It’s because I do not want my brother to feel alone or insecure, like he has to live in a fictional world to survive the real one. In middle age, I now know the consequences of those early choices, how insulating myself in heroes and villains and magical realism is not necessarily a good way to live. While comics and movies – particularly the X-men – serve as an excellent vehicle for understanding the world and recognizing we are not alone in our suffering, the reality is that people often disappear from our narratives and never come back. Profound losses, sacrifices, are not always rewarded. Friendships fall apart. Some villains are beyond redemption and we do not have a moral obligation to look for the tiny bit of good in them. As for ourselves, our heroism is not always noble. And ultimately, we can’t save everyone. Indeed, many of us can hardly save ourselves. More than any other comic book series, the X-men grappled with these issues. Religious leaders and politicians weaponize the media, sometimes investing in technology they barely understand and fail to think about critically or morally. The bad people in our lives are in pain too and while we might understand their humanity, even their fragility, we must constantly ask whether they can be saved as much as whether they want to be. People die. Every day. The scars never go away and, in unforeseen ways, change us.
Folks, we’re not heroes. Those only exist in fiction. And I’m not convinced being the responsible one is emotionally therapeutic, mentally healing, or socially medicinal. A lot of us are a little broken or, to frame it the way the X-men did, a lot of us are mutants walking around with pain and shame that only begins to make sense when we share who we are with one another. Like the concept of tikkun olam in Judaism, the lesson here is that the world might be terrible but we can only change the world when we band together and bring our unique selves to the task.
The pain we experience as well as the acts of courage still mean something, I guess. Our stories, complex and convoluted and unbelievable as they might be, make it possible for someone else to know they are not alone. We learn. My god, do we learn. And if that means we find comfort for a few years between the pages of a colorful book or in a seat at the movies or in listening to someone else’s pain, or doing childish things that keep us from being responsible, then those “childish” and “simple” parts still mean something. Helping others when we can with what we can – a ticket here, a meal there, a palmed dollar handed to a sunburnt stranger at a stoplight, or a phonecall where we listen with the silence of acceptance or the eagerness of solidarity – can slowly rebuild the parts we thought were lost. The echoes of immaturity take many forms. Sometimes, they appear as the tantrums of a man trying to come out even as he insists upon his masculinity through violence, other times as the thirty film collection neatly lined up on a shelf in the order of their release. Sometimes, they take the form of a parent telling their child, “I have a family now and you’re not part of it” because this is easier than accepting the loss of a mother warped your identity from a young age, how this loss caused you to live in a world of lies to protect yourself from the pain of real life. Sometimes, that immaturity takes the form of a mid-day dance party in the kitchen while you crunch on red pepper slices. Diversity is more than skin tone or gender. Diversity is also accepting that our world is populated by many, many colorful characters who look nothing like us. And in the last two decades, after sitting through every superhero movie so far with my brother, I’m convinced no comic taught this lesson better than the X-men.
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